Her Smell follows a grunge-era rock star backstage after a rousing encore, where a member of the entourage has something waiting.
Actually, it’s a baby, which gives you some idea that Her Smell, from writer-director (and Bryn Mawr native) Alex Ross Perry, is going to be a different kind of behind-the-scenes portrait of a hard-partying singer.
Becky (Elisabeth Moss, who also produced and has starred in two previous Perry movies) is the rocker and the baby’s mother, though she’s in no condition to function in either capacity.
She’s a train wreck, and for the viewer Her Smell is a startling HALO drop into the middle of what appears to be a psychotic break brought on by substance abuse. As portraits of self-destruction go, this one is a doozy, intensified by Moss’ all-in performance, and the way Perry arranges his film.
It’s five real-time segments (the movie runs over two hours), and the first three (one post concert, one preconcert and one during a recording session) are Becky in the midst of a full-blown crises. She is spiteful and cruel to everyone who loves her — her baby daddy (Dan Stevens), her two bandmates (Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin), and her mother (Virginia Madsen). In her delusional and paranoid state, Becky trusts no one, except the shady shaman and spiritual adviser who follow her from room to room, telling her what she wants to hear, performing rituals of dubious value.
People hang on, because they love her, or because there is a fruitful artistic partnership worth fighting for, but eventually most folks reach a limit and withdraw. On her way out the door, her bass player says, diplomatically, that Becky is “one of a kind.”
Some film buffs might argue that. Becky may put some in mind of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in Georgia, a movie that chose a more traditional dramatic structure and modulation, and gave viewers easier emotional access to the main character.
Perry’s gambit, which is not entirely successful, is to get in your face immediately with Becky’s rage, so that you feel what those close to her feel — the trapped, sweaty desperation of watching somebody implode. The relief from all of this is not felt until the part four, when sober, post-rehab Becky looks back on her recent past with mortification.
Here, Moss does her best and most subtle work, highlighted by a moment in which she bonds with her daughter over a Bryan Adams song, imbued with heart and soul that give the tune (and the film) new life.
Elsewhere the songs are taken from music by the Nashville band Bully, and by Philadelphia’s own Anika Pyle (of the bands Katie Ellen and Chumped), who provides the song performed by a band comprised of Becky’s protégés (including Cara Delevingne).
Pyle will appear with Perry for a Q&A following the screening of Her Smell at the Philadelphia Film Center at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27.
Her Smell. Directed by Alex Ross Perry. With Elisabeth Moss, Dan Stevens, Virginia Madsen, Agyness Deyn, and Cara Delevingne. Distributed by Gunpowder and Sky.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins.
Parents guide: R (language)